Towards a New Type of Relationship Between the United States and China
By Ali Wyne
In February 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the United States and China to develop “a new type of relationship between major countries.” Former U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon echoed Xi last March, urging the U.S. and China “to build a new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one.” Legions of Chinese officials and their counterparts in the U.S. have echoed these sentiments.
This shared desire for novelty reflects at least three realities: the historical record of power transitions is bleak; the stakes of getting U.S.-China relations “right” are unusually high - the two countries account for 33% of gross world product; and, given the complex, competitive-cum-cooperative nature of their interactions, there is a limit to the insight that can be gained by comparing U.S.-China relations to relations between previous pairs of leading powers and challengers.
The Difficulty of Characterizing China
While the U.S. and China are geopolitical competitors by default, they are also highly interdependent, especially economically; and while they have different visions for international order, each must cooperate with the other to safeguard its vital interests. They are accordingly unsure of how to relate to one another along the spectrum between allies and adversaries, an uncertainty that constrains their potential for strategic alignment.
One need not ignore the range and seriousness of tensions between the two countries, however, to conclude that they are not adversaries. In addition to demonstrating hostility towards one and possessing the capability to act on that sentiment, an adversary must attempt to harm one’s vital interests as a matter of policy. It is premature to assume that the Chinese leadership has settled on a coherent policy towards the U.S., let alone decided to proceed on the assumption that it is an enemy. As former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explains, China
needs access to U.S. markets, U.S. technology, opportunities for Chinese students to study in the U.S. and bring back to China new ideas about new frontiers. It therefore sees no profit in confronting the U.S. in the next 20 to 30 years in a way that could jeopardize these benefits….In the security arena, the Chinese understand that the U.S. has spent so much more and has built up such advantages that direct challenges would be futile.
The Importance of Patience
Given how rapidly China has risen in the past decade alone - from 2002 to 2012, its GDP increased from $1.2 trillion to $8.3 trillion, and its (official) defense spending increased from $37 billion to $157.6 billion - it may seem imprudent to counsel patience in appraising its intentions. It makes more sense, however, if one appreciates that the buildup of power does not immediately - or even necessarily - yield a strategy for using it.
China does, of course, have a foreign policy, but one that proceeds far more from domestic imperatives than from an organic vision of its global role: it is impossible to sustain robust growth for a population of 1.34 billion people unless one seeks and secures agreements for vital commodities across the world. The inherent incongruity between this “going out” strategy and China’s core diplomatic principle, noninterventionism, means that its foreign policy has been more ad hoc than is often appreciated.
Certain bilateral tensions will result from the inevitable hiccups, oscillations, and reversals that accompany the formulation of Chinese foreign policy; they should be distinguished from those tensions that can be plausibly ascribed to a government-approved policy to confront the U.S. The U.S. should be similarly patient in appraising the potential for sustained cooperation with China. The singular importance of the U.S.-China relationship is avowed so frequently - and, it must be said, casually - that some observers seem to have become desensitized to how new its current phase is. Only since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008 has it become standard to call the U.S.-China relationship the world’s most important.
Given the number of fundamental differences between the two countries, it will take them considerable time not only to adjust to one another, but also to accept the burdens that have been imposed on their relationship. Observers should neither expect nor demand sweeping improvements; they should instead discern and highlight incremental gains. Xi explained to Henry Kissinger last April that the “establishment of a new type of inter-power relationship between China and the United States needs an accumulation of dribs and drabs.”
U.S. Policy Towards China
The broad contours of U.S. policy towards China have been consistent for nearly half a century: integrate China into the liberal international order, but appreciate that it may adopt a more confrontational attitude as its power increases. Recently, however, criticism of this engage-but-hedge approach has grown more prominent: why is the U.S. expanding economic ties with China, on the one hand, but strengthening military and diplomatic ties with China’s neighbors, on the other? The certain outcome of the former step - boosting China’s economy - seems to be incongruous with the perceived objective of the latter - containing its rise. Richard Betts argues that “U.S. policy now amounts to a yellow light, a warning to slow down, short of a firm requirement to stop. Yellow lights, however, tempt some drivers to speed up….The only solution is a clear strategic decision about whether the United States will accept China’s full claims as a superpower when it becomes one or draw clear redlines before a crisis comes.”
As the Clinton administration recognized, the pressure to devise a coherent concept for U.S. policy towards China could undermine the very co-evolution that it seeks to facilitate. Given how much both Chinese power and U.S.-China economic integration have grown in the intervening decade and a half, that risk would be far greater today. Neither of the clear alternatives to hedging - containment and accommodation - is sound.
Lee observes that the U.S. “cannot stop China’s rise. It just has to live with a bigger China, which will be completely novel for the U.S.” Given that reality, he continues, it “will assure itself an enemy” if it “attempts to humiliate China.” Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell notes that one of the drivers of nationalism in Germany in the run-up to the First and Second World Wars “was a sense that it was being denied its rightful place on the international stage….China should feel like it is playing role in helping define and divine the institutions and frameworks of the 21st century.” The likely outcome of attempted containment - a protracted “Cold War” with a country whose leadership has intensely examined the causes of Soviet collapse - could cripple the U.S. economy, which is still struggling to recover from the global financial crisis and has yet to bear the full costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A core undertaking of postwar U.S. foreign policy, explains Campbell, has been to “create, with China and other countries, an ‘operating system’ that has served the interests of the Asia-Pacific region.” Conceiving of China as an adversary would not only preclude the possibility of joint U.S.-China investment in and guardianship of that operating system; it would also leave China’s neighbors with little choice but to “choose” it over the U.S. as their long-term ally of necessity.
While many of them are concerned about China’s regional aspirations, they cannot afford to participate in an explicit effort to constrict its rise - not even India, the only Asian-Pacific country, in Lee’s judgment, that could balance Chinese power by partnering with the U.S. China’s smaller neighbors are even more aware that “there will be consequences if they thwart China when its core interests are at stake. China can impose economic sanctions simply by denying access to its market of 1.3 billion people.” China is the largest trading partner of Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. According to State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign trade with Asia reached $1.2 trillion in 2012, surpassing its total trade with the U.S. and Europe.
Attempting to contain China would not only compromise U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific, but also deny it lucrative opportunities. Beyond the likelihood that China will have the world’s largest economy within a decade or so, China has been the world’s largest exporter since 2009 and the largest trading country overall since 2012. Given such realities, it is imperative for the U.S. to deepen its economic integration with China. The U.S. should not, of course, neglect other potential economic prizes: establishing a free-trade area with the European Union; finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and realizing the full potential of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Failing to expand economic ties with the world’s most dynamic economy, however, would be foolish in the extreme.
Accommodation is admittedly more subject to interpretation than containment. If, however, it is essentially understood to mean passivity in response to China’s rise, then it is similarly imprudent. Given the dearth of strategic trust between the U.S. and China, the U.S. must prepare for scenarios in which China attempts to exclude the U.S. from the Asia-Pacific, even as it concentrates on nurturing continued Chinese integration into and support for the postwar order (China’s recent establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone affirms the need for such preparation). As Joseph Nye explains:
Japan, India, Vietnam and other countries do not want to be dominated by China, and thus welcome an American presence in the region….A significant American military and economic presence helps to maintain the Asian balance of power and shape an environment that provides incentives for China to cooperate….But America’s rebalancing toward Asia should not be aggressive. We should…ensure that China doesn’t feel encircled or endangered.
The U.S. should consider two core analytical questions as it refines its framework for managing China’s rise:
· Which disagreements with China result from intrinsic clashes between the two countries’ vital national interests and strategic imperatives, and which result from deliberate Chinese attempts to undermine vital U.S. national interests?
· Which policies of China are comparable to those that any other rising power would take to safeguard an expanding set of national interests, and which proceed from an operational strategy to displace the U.S. from the Asia-Pacific?
Current Proposals for Moving Forward
Given the uncertain nature of U.S.-China relations, most proposals for forging a “new type” of great-power relationship understandably try to convert that ambiguity from a liability into a virtue. These eight, in ascending order of ambitiousness, offer a sense of today’s thinking:
· A Less Ambitious Relationship: The U.S. and China should “minimize competition, set aside intractable issues, and keep global and regional issues where they belong—in a multilateral framework.”
· Competitive Coexistence: “While establishing such a ‘new type of major power relations’ is a desirable aspiration…establish[ing] a relationship of ‘competitive coexistence’ is more realistic.”
· Identification of and Collaboration on Shared Interests: The U.S. should introduce “a new framework for cooperation with China that recognizes the reality of the two countries’ strategic competition, defines key areas of shared interests to work and act on, and thereby begins to narrow the yawning trust gap between the two countries.”
· Parity in Asia: “[T]he least China will accept as a satisfactory basis for Asia’s strategic order over the next few decades is a position of equality with the U.S.—an equal sharing of power between the region’s strongest states.”
· U.S. as Stabilizer and China as Preeminent Power in Asia: “History can avoid repeating the calamitous conflicts of the 20th century if America is present in Asia as stabilizer - not a would-be policeman - and if China becomes the preeminent, but not domineering, power in the region.”
· A Pacific Community: “The concept of a Pacific Community - a region to which the United States, China, and other states all belong and in whose peaceful development all participate - could ease” China’s fear that the U.S. seeks to contain it as well as America’s fear that China seeks to expel the U.S. from Asia.
· Co-Evolution: “[W]orking with China in a way that can protect our interests is less about direct confrontation of the sort we remember from the Cold War…and more about what we might call co-evolution….[Co-evolution] acknowledges the importance of giving China a say in how the world develops but demands in exchange an absolute commitment to curtail activities that make it more dangerous.”
· An Expanded International System: China and the West should “create a new equilibrium of power that maintains the current world system, but with a larger role for China.”
It is imperative to discern what roles the U.S. and China see themselves occupying in the international system of several decades hence. Xi has hinted at his long-term vision for U.S.-China relations, although not all accounts of it are consistent. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, for example, his “main foreign-policy initiative” is “to redefine China’s relationship with the U.S. as one between equal ‘great powers’.” According to a recent profile of Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Thomas (retired), however, which also appeared in the Journal, Xi’s “signature cause,” the “China Dream,” “posits that China will overtake the U.S. economically and militarily by mid-century” [emphasis mine].
While most observers would find the ambitiousness of Xi’s vision to be breathtaking, it is sensible from the Chinese nationalist’s perspective. The China of just half a century ago was reeling from the worst famine in human history, which is estimated to have killed between 30 and 45 million people. If, in the subsequent 50 years, it could progress to the point of being on track to displace the U.S. in aggregate economic size and military expenditure, why should it not imagine supplanting the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power within the next 50? The power of memory makes this logic of extrapolation even more compelling. China does not want to believe that trends in the international system are paving the way for a new configuration of power so much as they are restoring a variant of the Sino-centric state of affairs that existed before the Industrial Revolution.
Lee does not think that China is in any “hurry to displace the U.S. as the number 1 power in the world and to carry the burden that is part and parcel of that position.” It is self-evident to him, however, that it aims to overtake the U.S. as the world’s superpower, however long it may take to do so. Campbell is not so sure:
I do not think that China always knows what it wants. I think it is much more involved in the pursuit of power and the accruing of influence than it is with the ultimate determination of what to do with them. They are still in a period in which they have convinced the population to bear burdens in order to gain national capabilities, so I do not believe that there is currently a determined analysis that wants the United States to leave Asia.
Speculation over when China’s GDP will overtake America’s has increasingly yielded to speculation over when its comprehensive national power will overtake America’s—in short, when it will become “number one,” however difficult that term may be to define. According to a top Chinese official, Nye noted recently, “China would need a peaceful environment for development for 30 to 50 years,” and “the United States would remain the most powerful country for at least that long.”
That proposition might strike some as disingenuous. For those who discern deception rather than prudence in Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum - occasionally rendered as “conceal our ambitions and hide our claws” - China is wise to downplay its strengths and the likely pace of their augmentation, on the one hand, and exaggerate its weaknesses and the likely pace of their intensification, on the other. Perhaps, but one should not understate the challenges that Xi and his successors will face; among them: handling the influx of hundreds of millions into China’s cities by the end of the decade, slowing environmental degradation, and sustaining productivity as the proportion of its working-age citizens plummets.
Furthermore, explains Lee, China confronts a very different external environment than that to which it is accustomed: “You are not going back to old China, when you were the only power in the world as far as you knew….Now, you are just one of many powers, many of them more innovative, inventive, and resilient.” Its leaders must accept that “to dominate Asia is not possible.” Campbell agrees: “I do not think it will be possible for the U.S. - or for any country in Asia - to accept some 19th-century conception of spheres of influence in which one large country dominates in a very overbearing way over the interests of smaller countries on its periphery.”
Underwhelming a conclusion as it may be, the power transition that is now underway between the U.S. and China is more likely to produce a tense equilibrium than a clear reversal of their roles. They must ensure that this world is large enough to accommodate the fulfillment of their collective aspirations.
Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat. He is a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and him on Twitter.
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 “China, U.S. share good start on relations: President Xi,” last modified April 25, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-04/25/c_124627615.htm.
 If the U.S. is indeed trying to contain China, it is not doing so with much vigor. Exhibit A of the alleged campaign—the plan to station 60% of its naval fleet in the Pacific by 2020, up from 50% today—sounds more dramatic than it is: while part of the 10% increase would come from the addition of eight ships to the Pacific, part of it would come from the decommissioning of five ships in the Atlantic. Furthermore, from 2002 to 2012, China’s exports to the U.S. grew from $125 billion to $426 billion.
 Richard K. Betts, “The Lost Logic of Deterrence: What the Strategy that Won the Cold War Can—and Can’t—Do Now,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2013), 98-99.
 Allison, Blackwill, and Wyne, Lee Kuan Yew, 42 and 45.
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 Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Work with China, Don’t Contain It,” New York Times, January 26, 2013, A19.
 Graham Allison first brought these questions to my attention.
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 China will soon have the world’s largest economy, displacing the U.S. from a position that it has now held for roughly 125 years. The CIA reports that at purchasing power parity, China’s GDP was $12.38 trillion in 2012; America’s was $15.66 trillion. At market exchange rates, the figures were, respectively, $8.26 trillion and $15.65 trillion. Further along the horizon, China may well become the world’s largest defense spender, a title that the U.S. has now held for over seven decades.
 Campbell, interview.
 Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Our Pacific Predicament,” The American Interest (March/April 2013), 37.
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